Marfa schools hire new student success coordinator, build out sensory room for special education students

Marfa Elementary gained a new sensory room designed for special education students and funded by a grant from the Marfa Education Foundation this school year. Photo by: Mary Cantrell

MARFA — Marfa ISD School Board trustees met last week to review various school updates including the hiring of a student success coordinator and establishment of a grant-funded sensory room at the elementary campus for special education students.

Student athletes in workout attire packed the boardroom at the start of the meeting, taking a break from practice to be recognized by coaches, board members and Interim Superintendent Arturo Alferez for advancing to district competitions. Athletic Director Linda Ojeda congratulated them on their strong performances as individuals and teams this fall but reminded them it all began in summer training.

“This, right now, it’s all fun, rewards, all the good stuff,” said Ojeda. “But it’s only because you guys put the work in during the summer.”

Next Alferez shared that the district had received a 100% score on its first safety audit of the school year — unannounced inspections conducted by the state. He said junior and high school attendance was around 94% for the month of October, which is lower than desired, and the district was sending out letters, calling home and knocking on doors to reach parents and students not in attendance. Board Member Yolanda Jurado pointed out that attendance was one of the metrics the board was hoping to improve by adopting the four-day school week.

Attendance at the elementary school was higher at 96% in October, according to a presentation made by Principal Amy White.

Marfa ISD student athletes and coaches attended the most recent school board meeting to share team updates with trustees ahead of district competitions.

Sensory room

White also shared information and led a tour for board members of the elementary school’s recently-completed sensory room, a classroom transformed into a relaxing space designed for special education students that is also open to any student in need.

Funded by a $10,000 grant from the Marfa Education Foundation, the space includes color-changing fiber optic light strands and a bubble tube machine as well as a swing, beanbags, projector and more. Fluorescent overhead lights are also muted to create a calmer environment.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, elementary special education teacher Rosie Martinez, who previously worked as an autism consultant in El Paso and San Antonio, said the room was specifically designed with autistic students, a growing population nationally, in mind.
(In 2020, 1 in 36 children was identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to 1 in 150 in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

“Students living in the metropolitan areas have classrooms specialized for each specific disability, but in rural communities, we [lack that specificity],” said Martinez. “Because the prevalence rate of autism continues to increase, we felt the need to try to provide our students with the same equipment that larger schools have.”

Martinez said the space, in addition to hosting yoga and music programs, “helps [students’] visual, auditory and tactile processing as well as fine and gross motor skills.” Students that stim — perform repetitive motions due to anxiety — will be able to express themselves in a comfortable space, she explained.

“Another reason [for the sensory room] is to provide a sense of calm and comfort which can help students to self-regulate their behaviors, which ultimately improves focus,” said Martinez.

For now, around five of the elementary special education students were primarily utilizing the space, said White. Alferez declined to provide the exact number of special education students currently enrolled at the elementary campus, citing student and family privacy concerns.

According to the district’s 2022 report card, 12% of the students district-wide were classified as special education. Martinez works with four teaching assistants.

New student success coordinator

The school board also voted to hire a new counselor, also known as a student success coordinator, David Natividad, who will start at the junior high and high school this week. The district has been without a student success coordinator since the summer.

The shortage of working counselors is affecting districts across the state; according to the American School Counselor Association, Texas is currently averaging one counselor per 400 students compared to the recommended one per 250.

Natividad is a Marfa ISD alumni, and previously worked at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview as a Title 5 grant project director.

“He’s a person that’s been here, that knows the community, knows the students, knows families here in town,” said Alferez.

Alferez said while Natividad is not yet a certified counselor, the district will encourage him to pursue certification. Natividad will act as a “liaison for students,” said Alferez, and the district will maintain relationships with outside additional counselors to call upon in the case of a crisis.

He said Natividad will also help out with district testing and college readiness, an area he is very familiar with.

“He is more of a pipeline for our students to get into those colleges, universities, to assist our students in scholarships and financial aid since he knows those programs available at the university level,” said Alferez.